The NWSL’s Pacific Northwest Derby is already 14 matches old following Saturday night’s 2-2 draw between the Thorns and Reign at Providence Park. The split result seems fitting, not only because each of the rivals owned one of the halves, but also because the versions of the clubs that we saw Saturday and very likely to evolve before they meet again July 1.
Here are three observations from Saturday’s contest.
The Reign are work in progress, and they know it
This is not news to anyone. You don’t lose Keelin Winters, Kim Little, Kendall Fletcher, and Hope Solo and then just show up and keep going with the status quo. Add Christine Nairn to the mix, who missed Saturday’s game for an excused personal absence, and Laura Harvey had a conundrum on her hands.
Harvey’s try at a solution was to play an unconventional, 3-4-3 that pushed Merritt Mathias off the backline and into a more attacking role and attempted to expose the Thorns’ weakness on the flanks in the absence of Tobin Heath and both of their preferred outside backs. It’s effectiveness is difficult to judge. Jessica Fishlock put the Reign on the board after 59 seconds, but that was more the product of a well-placed cannon from distance than the formation imparting its will. The match was also played with one team or the other often spending extended time in the attacking third which often pulled both teams out of shape.
The likelihood is that even if the 3-4-3 carved up the Thorns over a full 90 minutes, it was never meant to be the new world order for the Reign. It is just not a setup that lends itself to consistent results and performance at the professional level. But it was certainly a clear message that what happened a week earlier in Boston was not going to be the norm.
If we polled 10 of the most ardent Seattle Reign followers about what their lineup and formation would look like July 1, there is a good chance all 10 answers would be different. The good news is that Fishlock is as effective as ever and Megan Rapinoe finally looks to be back to some semblance of her old self following ACL surgery in 2015 and a rushed recovery into the Olympics in 2016. With the Hair Twins in place, Harvey has a strong pairing to fill out the rest of the pie.
The Thorns really miss their injured players
Any team that runs out a midfield of Allie Long, Lindsey Horan, and Amandine Henry and includes Christine Sinclair and Nadia Nadim among their strikers really should have very little to grouse about. But the Thorns are also missing several parts, one being Tobin Heath, who has been nursing a back injury for about a month. In 2016 Heath was instrumental in maintaining width in the Thorns attack, and Harvey would have had to think twice about trying to exploit the flanks had Heath been in the lineup.
Harvey’s counterpart Mark Parsons has also been without his outside backs Katherine Reynolds and Meghan Klingenberg. Replacements Celeste Boureille and Meghan Cox have been adequate, but without the regulars the back line lacks some of its attacking flair. And coincidentally or not there seems to be more space between the Emilys—center backs Menges and Sonnett. For proof, check out the Reign’s second goal.
Klingenberg came in and played the 2nd half in place of Cox and was part of the reason the Thorns were able to flip the script during the latter 45. She also had the assist to Long for the equalizing goal. Dagny Brynjarsdottir and Mana Shim are of less direct importance, but both represent options either to come off the bench or to spell a tired regular in the starting lineup.
The Thorns are a tough team. That, even above their glut of talent, has been their hallmark since Parsons arrived during the 2015-2016 offseason. The last time they beat the Reign was last July 30, when more than half of Parsons’s first choice starting team was on Olympic duty and Nadim somehow managed to stick one while the rest of the Thorns battled fiercely to keep the sheet clean. Saturday was not as dramatic, but they still had to dig in and figure out the Reign’s 3-4-3 and then come up with an equalizer.
There is no specific timeline on Heath’s return but when it happens, the Thorns will have an entirely different look. If Klingenberg can get back to 90 minutes next week, that, too, will help.
Merritt Mathias and the case for pressing the Thorns
The secret is well out of the bag by now—Adrianna Franch struggles in distribution. It happened again Saturday night, and with the Reign putting on the full court press in the 1st half, the Thorns managed very little in terms of back-to-front buildup. Again Klingenberg helped, but watching the Thorns try to build is downright painful at times.
Enter Mathias, who not only helped in the press but capitalized on space in the Thorns’ defense to score the Reign’s second goal of the night. Harvey once did an NSCAA seminar on “defending from the front” where she spoke in glowing terms of Mathias’s ability to defend from an advanced position. And there she was for parts of last season playing right back.
That leads to two problems. One is, Mathias at right back takes her away from her ability to defend up top. Two is, she is a yellow card waiting to happen as a defender. She already had two over the first three games, including one game in which she didn’t make halftime after taking a knock to the head. Five is an automatic suspension, and of course two in the same match leaves your teammates to go a woman short the rest of the way.
Like most of the Reign, the defensive setup is something of a work in progress. If I were in charge—and it’s probably a good thing I am not—I would exhaust all other options before sending Mathias back again.
If I am any other NWSL coach—starting with Vlatko Andonovski whose FC Kansas City host the Thorns next weekend—I would work on making the Thorns pay more for their heretofore inability to build out of the back.